What does “transgender” mean exactly, and how does the English language handle gender?

There is an increase in public discourse on transgender rights this spring. Nevada is considering a bill that would provide discrimination protection to transgender people in housing, public accommodation and job protections, similar to laws in place for other protected minorities. A bill in Maine addressing public accommodation for transgender people is also in the news. Meanwhile, hate crime charges are being considered in the beating of a transgender woman who was trying to use the bathroom at a Baltimore-area McDonald’s.

Today, we address the language and meaning of words regarding transgender issues – many of them are actually very new words. We also uncover why English makes it particularly tricky to use transgender vocabulary at first glance. As a Dictionary.com user, you know the power of a well-used word, so read on and fortify your vocabulary.

The word transgender is a recent addition to English. In conversational use as early as the 1960s, “transgender” entered the dictionary in the early 1990s. Trans- is a Latin prefix meaning “across or beyond.” Gender shares the same Latin root as genus. As a classifier for male and female, “gender” replaced “sex” in the 20th century. This was a trend started by feminist writers who wanted to highlight the biological attributes of males and females separate from their social characteristics.

While the word transgender is very new, the idea of behaving outside a traditional gender identity role is quite old: A whole level of meaning to Shakespeare’s plays, often in the form of double entendre revolves around the men dressed up as women to act in female roles.

Discussion around the bills under consideration in Maine and Nevada refer to transmen and transwomen, compounds originating from the word transgender that apply the familiarity of the word and its idea to individual people.

Ambiguity means doubt, but it also means “capable of being two things.” Gender ambiguity is a term that describes the blurring of lines dividing male and female gender identity.

Linguistically, English does not like ambiguity. Pronouns in English are gender-designated (he/she, him/her). The only gender-neutral singular pronoun in English is “it”, which isn’t useful because it applies to objects, not people. The gender-neutral plural “they” is also an easy go-to, but is grammatically incorrect because it is plural, not singular, and can’t be applied to an individual.*

The bills in Maine and Nevada include the phrase “public accommodation.” This is a phrase first used by the disabled access movement of the 1970s, which culminated in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Examples of public accommodation include braille text in elevators for blind people and wheelchair accessible doorways for wheelchair users. The language addresses accessibility and accommodation in spaces that are privately owned but open to the public, such as cafes and banks and bookstores. An example often cited for public accommodation for transgender people is the use of gender-specific bathrooms in public places.

We’ve covered some of the new words in a quite new but very important topic. As always, your comments are welcome on the Hot Word, but we want to remind you to keep the debate civil – any uncivil comments will not be published.

* Special thanks Zinnia Jones.